Research - Maternal Deprivation
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Free Paper written for the British Association
for the Study and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect BASPCAN
Fifth National Congress 20 – 23 July 2003
Strengthening the Links – Research, Policy & Practice
How effectively does research influence policy and enhance
practice? Key Words – Maternal Deprivation, Parental
Alienation Syndrome, Frye Test.
Although it is over 50 years since the phrase ‘Maternal
Deprivation,’ was coined the research of John Bowlby
still exerts a considerable influence on the upbringing of
children in family court proceedings. This paper considers
whether there is a need for a mechanism, similar to the Frye
Test used in the USA, through which relatively recent scientific
developments, such as Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS),
are subjected to professional scrutiny before they are accepted
as a legal entity.
The maltreatment of children can take many forms.
No case hardened child care professional can fail to be shocked
by the gratuitous cruelty inflicted on Victoria Climbie. But
there is another form of maltreatment, which is so insipid
it is taken for granted in UK family court proceedings.
It is now over 30 years since Professor Sir
Michael Rutter’s seminal work ‘Maternal Deprivation;
Reassessed’ (1972) in which he challenged the accepted
principle upon which family court proceedings in the UK are
based. Although the Children Act 1989 sought to give such
research the force of law, by redressing the balance between
mothers and fathers in the interests of the welfare of their
children, judicial practice still has not changed.
Judges in the UK do not have formal training
in children’s welfare. Instead in theory they follow
the advice given by Family Court Welfare Officers now part
of CAFCASS. In reality ‘court authorities’ or
case laws form the benchmark for any decision regarding the
welfare of children. For example a cornerstone of family court
proceedings is the case law set by the former Master of the
Rolls Lord Donaldson. “At the risk of being told by
academics hereafter that my views are contrary to well-established
authority, I think that there is a rebuttable presumption
of fact that the best interests of a baby are best served
by being with its mother and I stress the word ‘baby’.
When we are moving on to whatever age it may be appropriate
to describe the baby as having become a child, different considerations
may well apply. But as far as babies are concerned, the starting
point is, I think, that it should be with its mother.”
(Lord Donaldson MR, Re D (A Minor) (Residence Order, 1992)
2 FLR 332, 336. CA). This precedent followed the example given
by Sir Roualeyn Cumming-Bruce, “It has also been said
that it is not a principle but a matter of observation of
human nature in the case of upbringing of children of tender
years, that given the normal commitment of a father to support
the family, the mother, for practical and emotional reasons,
is usually the right person to bring up the children.”
(Per Sir Roualeyn Cumming-Bruce in Re H (a minor) 1 FLR 51,
In the same way criminal law has ‘precedents’
the Family Division has ‘court authorities’, made
by judges hearing cases in the Court of Appeal or High Court.
Because of the doctrine of staire decisis formal justice requires
‘consistency’ therefore the lower courts must
follow the ratio decidendi laid down by the higher court,
and judges must respect and follow decisions or court authorities
of other judges in the same level court. It is through this
judicial process that Bowlby’s theory of ‘Maternal
Deprivation’ still exerts a considerable influence in
disputes over access or custody notwithstanding the age of
According to the theory of ‘Maternal Deprivation’
or as it is more commonly referred to in the courts and in
the USA the ‘Tender Years’ doctrine, infants form
a special relationship with their mother, which is qualitatively
different from the relationship they form with any other kind
of person. By a mechanism that Bowlby (1951) saw as very similar
to imprinting, he considered that the young infant developed
a firm attachment to his or her mother within the first six
months of life, and that if this attachment or bond was then
broken, the infant would suffer serious consequences.
Hayes (2000) describes how Bowlby’s work
rapidly assumed a political dimension, as his research was
seized by the post-war pressure groups, which argued that
women should stay at home and look after children full-time.
This had become a sensitive political issue because there
were a large number of returning servicemen, and it was considered
necessary that jobs should be freed for them. Since women
had worked during the war and carried on working afterwards,
some people argued that they should return to full-time child
care in the home, and free their jobs for the returning servicemen.
The political nature of this debate meant that
Bowlby’s research received a large amount of publicity,
which was inevitably sensationalised. However, Bowlby himself
had included in his book ‘Child Care and the Growth
of Love’ (1953) a table of the kinds of circumstances
which were likely to damage children. These were mostly extreme
circumstances, like ‘war’, ‘famine’,
‘death’, but he did include, ‘mother working
full-time’, and it was this phrase which fuelled the
debate, until the term ‘Maternal Deprivation’
became a catch-phrase in society. Some of the returning servicemen
included solicitors who were later to become judges. For example
Lord Donaldson served with the Guards Armoured Divisional
Signals in north-west Europe from 1942-45 and with the Military
Government in Schleswig-Holstein before called to Bar, Middle
Temple, 1946. He later went on to become Master of the Rolls
who is the highest judge with civil responsibilities.
Early evidence cited by Bowlby did indeed seem
to suggest that children could be harmed as a result of ‘Maternal
Deprivation’, and moreover that it could last until
adult life. Bowlby cited a study by Spitz (1945), who described
how the depression a child felt at losing a parent could last
until childhood; and a study by Goldfarb (1943), showing how
children who had lived in institutions for their first three
years of life were less rule-abiding, less sociable and less
intelligent (as measured by IQ tests) than a comparable group
who had been fostered. Bowlby himself reported how, of forty-four
juvenile delinquents attending a child guidance clinic, seventeen
had been separated from their mothers for a significant period
before the age of 5, which was not the case for a control
group of forty-four disturbed adolescents who had not broken
Other evidence for ‘Maternal Deprivation’
accrued rapidly. Patton and Gardner (1963) introduced the
concept of deprivation dwarfism, showing that deprived and
neglected children were often under-sized by comparison with
others. And a further study by Bowlby (1956), of sixty children
who had spent a period in a sanatorium before the age of 4,
showed lower school achievement in later childhood and a tendency
to over-excitability and daydreaming.
That serious psychological disturbance could
result from early experience seemed clear. In particular,
such disturbances seemed to interfere with the capacity to
form meaningful relationships with others, even at times resulting
in ‘affectionless psychopathy’. The way in which
attachments are formed in human infants rapidly became the
subject of extensive psychological research. In 1964, a paper
by Schaffer and Emerson produced new evidence for the attachment
process. Rather than using clinical interviews and retrospective
data from hospital and school records, as Bowlby had done,
Schaffer and Emerson performed ethological observations of
how mothers and infants interacted in their own homes.
Schaffer and Emerson (1964) found that attachments
did not automatically result from the mother simply being
with the baby, as Bowlby had thought. Instead, they seemed
to develop as a result of the quality of the interaction which
the baby and mother. This meant that in some circumstances,
an infant might form a relationship with someone who was not
their primary caretaker (the person who looked after them
most of the time) In some cases too the infants formed multiple
attachments, developing relationships with more than one person.
These findings seriously challenged Bowlby’s idea of
‘monotropy’, since an important feature was that
there could be only one special relationship for any one child.
Perhaps because of the political nature of the
‘Maternal Deprivation’ debate, the findings by
Schaffer and Emerson did not receive much attention in the
popular media. They were, however, very influential in opening
up a wide range of research. What Schaffer and Emerson had
shown was that babies are sociable. They respond best to those
people who interact with them, not just to the people who
take care of their physical needs.
Newson (1974) also argued that mothering skills
are not in any way innate or instinctive. Instead, they are
skills, which are acquired as you become more able to detect
and understand that baby's responses. Babies, on their part,
learn very fast, and respond more to those people who are
sensitive to their actions. They are also, as Schaffer and
Emerson showed, more likely to form attachments with people
who respond sensitively to them. The implication here is that
interacting with babies is a learned skill; and fathers can
acquire these skills just as mothers do, given motivation
The early study by Schaffer and Emerson showed
that infants could develop multiple attachments - several
of the infants in their study were as attached to their fathers
as to their mothers. Some, too, had developed an attachment
to the father but not to the mother, even though it was the
mother who was looking after them most of the time. In such
cases, always, it was the father who responded most sensitively
to the child.
Parke and O’Leary (1976) observed mothers
and fathers in a maternity ward. What they found was that,
contrary to the popular stereotypes, fathers tended to be
very keen on interacting with their infants, and were neither
inept nor uninterested in what their new born children were
like. Instead, they were often as sensitive in interacting
with their infants as the mothers were.
Parke and Swain (1980) observed mothers and
fathers each feeding their 3-month-old infants. They also
found that the fathers responded just as sensitively to infant
cues as the mothers did, responding in terms of both social
interaction - conversational or gestural - and by adjusting
the pace of feeding according to the signals being put out
by the child. However, they did find that fathers tended to
hand the responsibility for caretaking to their wives rather
than adopting that responsibility themselves. The skills that
fathers had in parenting became apparent only when they were
asked to demonstrate how they would go about interacting with
their children for the investigators: much of the time they
did not seem to exercise these skills at home.
In his work, ‘Maternal Deprivation: Reassessed’
Rutter (1991, p217) states,
i. Investigations have demonstrated the importance
of a child's relationship with people other than his mother.
ii. Most important of all there has been the repeated findings
that many children are not damaged by deprivation.
iii. The old issue of critical periods of development and
the crucial importance of early years has been reopened and
re-examined. The evidence is unequivocal that experiences
at all ages have an impact.
iv. The first few years may have a special importance for
bond formation and social development.
Bowlby’s theory of ‘Maternal Deprivation’
was that children were damaged by separation from their mother
or mother figure. Rutter pointed out that children were not
invariably so damaged and that, in any event, other people,
including their fathers, are also very important to children.
Yet, as the ‘court authorities’ indicate, it is
the work of Bowlby not Rutter, which defines the approach
adopted by judges in family court proceedings.
In exceptional circumstances the office of the
Official Solicitor may ask for an expert opinion to clarify
such issues. For example, Dr. Sturge in consultation with
Dr. Glaser were asked to prepare a report (Sturge & Glaser,
2000) for the cases Re L (Contact: Domestic Violence); Re
V (Contact: Domestic Violence); Re M (Contact: Domestic Violence);
Re H (Contact: Domestic Violence)  2 FLR 334).
A particular aspect of research they were asked
to comment upon is the phenomenon of Parental Alienation Syndrome
(PAS). They state that PAS does not exist because it is:
• not recognised in either the American
classification of mental disorders (DSMIV) or the international
classification of disorders (ICD10);
• not generally recognised in our or allied child mental
PAS is the process by which one parent, usually
the mother, turns the child against the other parent in a
dispute over access or custody. Sturge & Glaser argue
that PAS assumes a cause (seen as misguided or malign on the
part of the resident parent) which leads to a prescribed intervention
whereas the concept (which no one claims to be a ‘syndrome’)
is simply a statement aimed at the understanding of particular
situations but for which a range of explanations is possible
and for which there is no single and prescribed solution,
this depending on the nature and individuality of each case.
They believe the basic concept in the PAS is a uni-directional
one as if such situations are a linear process when they are,
in fact, dynamic and interactional with aspects of each parent’s
relationship to the other interacting to produce the difficult
and stuck situation. PAS only increases the complexity and
difficulty of solution finding.
Sturge & Glaser consider PAS not to be a
helpful concept and that the sort of problems the title of
this disorder is trying to address is better thought of as
‘implacable hostility’. They cite a rebuttal of
PAS from the USA by Faller, ‘The Parental Alienation
Syndrome: What Is It and What Data Support It?’ (1998)
But this work is itself subject of a critique by Dr. Gardener
(1998) one of the researchers who first highlighted the problem
in the United States. Gardener describes how typically children
who suffer with PAS will exhibit most of the following moderate
or severe symptoms.
1. A campaign of denigration 2. Weak, absurd,
or frivolous rationalisations for the deprecation 3. Lack
of ambivalence 4. The “independent-thinker” phenomenon
5. Reflexive support of the alienating parent in the parental
conflict 6. Absence of guilt over cruelty to and/or exploitation
of the alienated parent 7. The presence of borrowed scenarios
8. Spread of the animosity to the friends and/or extended
family of the alienated parent
Gardener (2000) berates Sturge & Glaser for ignoring the
growing amount of research on the subject and compares PAS
to other medical conditions from the past that were not immediately
identified. For example Gille de la Tourette first described
his syndrome in 1885. It was not until 1980, that the disorder
found its way into the DSM. It is important to note that at
that point, Tourette’s Syndrome became Tourette’s
Disorder. Similarly, Asperger first described his syndrome
in 1957. It was not until 1994 that it was accepted into DSM-IV
and Asperger’s Syndrome became Asperger’s Disorder.
He goes on to claim that the symptoms of PAS
can be recognised in much the same way as any other medical
condition. For example, a person suffering with
pneumococcal pneumonia may have chest pain, cough, purulent
sputum, and fever. However, the individual may still have
the disease without all these symptoms manifesting themselves.
The syndrome is more often “pure” because most
of the symptoms in the cluster predictably manifest themselves.
Another example would be Down’s Syndrome, which includes
a host of seemingly disparate symptoms that do not appear
to have a common link.
In an interview (Dyer, 2002) the High Court
Judge, Mr. Justice Wall, Chairman of the Children Act Sub-Committee,
seemed to lend weight to Gardener’s interpretation.
He describes how he has dealt with disputes over access or
custody by letting children move home from the mother to the
“I have done it in one or two cases but
that requires a very delicate process. What is very interesting,
I've found in the cases where I've done it, is how rapidly
the alienation seems to disappear. A child who a few weeks
before had been saying, 'My father is a rapist and a kidnapper
and I am frightened of him out of my wits, I don't ever want
to see him I'm so frightened of him', in a month or so that
child is happily living with his father - with very skilled
therapeutic intervention, I have to say. It doesn't happen
just like that”.
These cases were not heard in the High Court
or Court of Appeal therefore do not form ‘court authorities’
but perhaps they can shine a light on Gardener’s frustration
with UK courts. Instead of perceiving the problem in terms
of refusing to recognise that PAS exists perhaps he should
see it in terms of misdiagnosis.
In ‘The Battered Child Syndrome’
Smith (1975) outlines how this condition was first medically
recognised. According to his account it went through a considerable
period of misdiagnosis. One of the earliest recorded cases
in 1898 was described as, “early rickets on account
of the absence of any other assignable cause.”
During the forties early radiological reports
considered a number of other possible explanations. For example
that children injured themselves during convulsions, that
skeletal disease had so weakened the bones that they were
vulnerable to trauma or that they were suffering from scurvy.
Smith makes the point that at this time it was recognised
“injuries may be denied by the mothers or nurses because
injury of an infant implies negligence on the part of its
It was not until Kempe in the early sixties,
a paediatrician at the University of Colorado School of Medicine,
that the medical condition was officially recognised. He was
concerned by the large number of children admitted under his
care who were suffering from non accidental injury. In order
to obtain a more accurate picture he undertook a nation-wide
survey of hospitals. To direct attention to the seriousness
of the problem he proposed the term ‘battered child
Research should inform policy. As Kempe has
shown without identifying the cause of the problem it is impossible
to treat the symptoms effectively. But the same influences
that prevented the effective treatment of this condition could
also apply to PAS. Rutter (1991, p131) describes how the term
‘Maternal Deprivation’ covers a most heterogeneous
range of experiences and of outcomes due to quite disparate
mechanisms. He considers these main areas or as Rutter labels
them ‘syndromes’ thought to result from ‘Maternal
Deprivation’ and the mechanisms proposed for their causation.
These include Acute Distress Syndrome, Conduct Disorders,
Intellectual Retardation, and Affectionless Psychopathy. “While
it has been recognised that the experiences subsumed under
‘Maternal Deprivation’ are complex, there is still
a tendency to regard both the experiences and the outcomes
as a syndrome which can be discussed as a whole” (Rutter
1991, p16). This tendency extends to the judiciary who would
rather add the symptoms described by Gardener than recognise
PAS and undermine the basic principle to which decisions in
the Family Division are wedded; that the best interests of
a child lie with his or her mother.
According to Dame Butler-Sloss, the shared-parenting
philosophy proposed by the Children Act 1989 is, “thought
out, but not sorted out” (Driscoll, 2002). The President
of the Family Division states that every child must have a
base: “A child should know which is his bedroom in his
home and, confident of that, spend as much time as is practical
with the other parent.” Although Bowlby (1951) maintained
that children thrive better in bad homes than in good institutions
his more recent writings (1988) acknowledge the complexities
of the situation and of the dangers of comparisons of this
sort. Whilst accepting, on the whole, it appears that separations
may be less stressful if the infant remains in a familiar
environment, Rutter (1991) states that the effects of a strange
environment are less consistent and it seems that it is the
nature of the strangeness as well as the presence of a novel
stimulus which is important. “Indeed, some novel stimuli
may be pleasurable to the child” (p39).
It is one of the hardest things in the World
to try and change the status quo. Sturge & Glaser state
in the preface to their report, “We approach this task
with humility as much of what we say is self-evident, is clearly
already part of the judiciary’s thinking as is illustrated
in so many judgments, and as we cite a literature that is
well known to many in the legal profession involved with child
care.” As a result of challenging this thinking Gardener
has suffered professional recrimination (Bruch, 2002). It
would be logical to assume that if the problem lies within
the courts it must be possible to change these decisions through
the court process. But the author has raised these issues,
as a litigant in person, on several occasions in the Court
of Appeal only to be told by Lady Justice Hale (19thNovember,
2002) that he would not be allowed a full hearing because,
“It does not subject psychological theories to that
sort of close examination,” EWCA Civ 1759.
Maybe what is required to facilitate the transition
from research to practice in this country is something like
the Frye Test in the USA, which is the accepted mechanism
through which relatively recent scientific developments are
subjected to professional scrutiny before acceptance as a
legal entity. It seems manifestly unfair that a theory such
as ‘Maternal Deprivation’ is accepted without
condition whilst PAS is ignored.
Sturge & Glaser consider PAS not to be a
helpful concept. This begs the question, helpful to whom?
Do they mean other psychologists and sociologists? Or do they
mean the judges and lawyers?
Perhaps the last word should go to Baroness
Hayman, 15thApril 1999, speaking for the Department of Health,
who replied to a Member of Parliament’s enquiry on behalf
of a concerned father,
“Most practitioners would consider denigration
of one parent by the other to be emotionally abusive but if
the child was otherwise well cared for the court may feel
that it is in the child's best interests to remain with the
denigrating parent, leaving the denigrated parent understandably
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